For years, Ford has been experimenting with materials to cut its petroleum use, and the 2010 Ford Flex will showcase the latest fruits of its labor. The Flex’s third-row storage bin will have a 20 percent wheat straw-based plastic content.
While the change may seem small, it will cut manufacturing petroleum by 10 tons and CO2 emissions by 15 tons, and cut the storage bin’s weight by 10 percent — thereby saving the end consumer a small amount of fuel, as well. Similarly, in late September, Ford announced that it is now using soy-based foam in seat cushions and backs and interior roof covers, a change that saved 750 tons of petroleum in the manufacturing process. The soy foam is also 25 percent lighter than petroleum foam.
Bioplastics is a burgeoning industry, and the material is showing up everywhere from cell phone casing to grocery bags. But it may not be ideal for durable consumer goods like vehicles. Because of their natural fiber components, these plastics tend to absorb moisture more readily and decompose more quickly than traditional plastic — a desirable quality in plastic bags, but not in dashboards.
Ford is taking a chance with the Flex, but it’s in good hands. Its five-member, all-female Biomaterials and Plastics Research team is currently developing plastic and glass replacements from wheat straw, hemp and sawgrass, corn, sweet potatoes and beets, and it has high standards. “Our objective is to pass every requirement that exists for traditional material,” says the team’s technical leader, Debbie Mielewski. “We will either meet or beat that standard.”
Biomaterials’ other advantage is weight. Cutting vehicle weight is a strategy many automakers are using to help them meet stricter upcoming fuel economy standards. Mazda has made it a hallmark of its long-term fuel economy plan, and Ford’s commitment to weight reduction has reached out of the car’s cabin and into the motor block.
“Five years ago, no one would’ve been interested in weight reduction,” marvels Mielewski. “Now, people are interested if you can save a half a pound.”
And it’s here that the natural materials excel. Increasing the amount of bioplastics inside a vehicle — in upholstery, seats, headliner, seat belts, veneer and trim — can save as much as 20 pounds of vehicle weight, and every little bit helps.